November 13, 2012
One of the most memorable moments in my 40+ years of fishing occurred at dawn's first light on Lake Cumberland in Kentucky. As the late Tony Campisano roared around a point and into a large cove, I wondered at the surflike commotion at the back of the bay. The scene looked like crashing breakers at Malibu Beach, but the morning was flat calm and the spot sheltered by a classic Kentucky holler.
"Look at 'em all," Campisano beamed, and I suddenly knew hundreds of big stripers were busting shad on top, far more fish than I'd ever seen while fishing off the Atlantic Coast. We frantically rigged our rods with Cordell Redfins and heaved the baits into the fray. The shad-happy stripers struck with abandon, but in their aggression they often missed the bait or were marginally hooked and pulled off on the first powerful run.
Little matter, an accompanying striper would grab the lure as it fell from the mouth of its fellow. The frantic bite lasted almost an hour until the rising sun banished the big stripers to the lake's depths. But during its height, the bite provided one of the most action-packed sequences in the history of In-Fisherman Television.
Action like that is a reason fishery biologists began stocking anadromous striped bass into inland impoundments more than 40 years ago. Over the years, researchers have learned a great deal about the habitat needs of stripers and the type of lakes that support them. Moreover, they've learned the types of lakes that can produce large numbers of moderate-size stripers (8 to 20 pounds) and which can grow true giants (35- to 60-pounders).
Important factors include forage base, for stripers are shad-eating machines and their location patterns typically follow those of gizzard and threadfin shad, alewives, or blueback herring. Stripers favor expansive impoundments that offer a variety of depths, feeder creeks and rivers.
Also, to grow big stripers, a thermal refuge is necessary, for the giants are coldwater fish, favoring water cooler than 65°F. So infertile highland and canyon impoundments with cold, oxygenated water below the thermocline offer fine habitat. Some reservoirs like Lanier in Georgia and Norris in Tennessee once were in that category, but increasing eutrophication lowered oxygen levels in the hypolimnion, simultaneously reducing the maximum size of stripers.
Stocking rate also affects average and ultimate size as well as total abundance of stripers, for growth seems density dependent, provided the forage base and coolwater habitat is limited. Fishery managers typically stock from five to ten 1-inch fingerlings per acre, though mortality takes a quick toll on the little fish.Abundance of predators and availability of zooplankton prey and hatchling shad shortly after stocking strongly affects survival and subsequent year-class strength. Lately, fishery biologists have begun stocking advanced fingerlings from 3 to 5 inches long that should show better survival rates.
In most systems, stripers must be regularly stocked (at least every other year) because the reservoir systems typically don't provide the free-running rivers stripers need for natural reproduction. Exceptions exist, and biologists have found stripers spawning where it was thought impossible — on sterile submerged buttes in theColorado River and in a small Maryland impoundment without a major tributary.
But usually infertility is a benefit, for it allows biologists to control the number of striped bass in a system. Where they spawn ad libitum, as in lakes Mead and Powell, they frequently become overpopulated, resulting in poor condition and slow growth. But they provide fast action, and daily bag limits are liberal, up to 20 fish per day.
Regional Roundup — Tidal Stripers
Striped bass are native to the Atlantic Coast, from the Canadian Maritime provinces south to Georgia and north Florida. A precipitous decline in the mid-1980s led to closure of commercial fishing and catch-and-release-only regulations for recreational anglers. These regulations, combined with pollution abatement in major East Coast rivers, and perhaps some environmental factors, have fostered a huge resurgence of stripers.
Anglers living within 100 miles of the coast have been discovering incredible action for giant fish. Strict length-limit regulations continue, so catch-and release is the rule in most situations, with harvest of a trophy fish or limited numbers of small fish allowed. Check local regulations.
The Chesapeake Bay is an incredible resource, a short drive from millions of urban and suburban residents. During May, the Bay is full of rockfish, as they're known. Fall brings the hottest bite with countless stripers along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. Anglers troll large spoons and bucktail jigs, or umbrella rigs, and also cast topwaters. Fishing live or rigged eels, bunker, bluebacks, and other baits also works.
Just north, the tidal Potomac River houses a growing population of stripers. Winter fishing in the warmwater discharge from the Morgantown Power Plant can be phenomenal, with lots of 15- to 20-pounders and potential for a 40+. Casting jigs and crankbaits to rock jetties and submerged oyster bars is a good pattern.
The Susquehanna River also attracts a run of stripers, moving up to the Conowingo Dam. Casting bucktails and Sassy Shads is effective during the Prespawn Period, while drifting live shad andherring or cutbait works as the fish move back downstream in May, holding along deeper ledges.
The Delaware River, which flows past Philadelphia, hosts a fine run of stripers — lots of fish from 25 to 35 pounds and occasional 45+ trophies. The lower Delaware (below Trenton, NJ) is navigable with delineated channels fishable from all craft. Fishing begins there in March as stripers follow migrating American shad and blueback herring.
The upper Delaware is a fast-water fishery best navigated with a jet boat. Wading is possible in some spots. Big stripers hold behind boulders where they engulf live herring caught on bare gold hooks. The section around Easton, Pennsylvania, holds big fish.
Farther north, the Hudson River stock is back big time, with an estimated 2million fish running upstream as far as Troy, New York, beginning in late April. The fishing ban and massive river cleanup have achieved the revival. The run starts when water temperatures push above 60°F.
Fishing in New York harbor up to the Tappan Zee Bridge is productive. Local anglers also favor the section from Kingston to Poughkeepsie. Fishing live eels is the traditional approach, but try trolling big plugs like Bombers and Mann's Stretch 18+.
The striper run in the Connecticut River begins a bit later, offering excellent shallow-water action in the section below the old Enfield Dam near Enfield, Connecticut. Drifting cut mackerel is thepreferred technique, but large jerkbaits and even topwaters score in deeper pools and in eddies. Bank fishing is possible, and jet boats provide better maneuvering when water levels are low. Up the coast in Maine, reports suggest that big linesiders are pressing their way into the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.
On the Pacific side, tidal waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers, west of Sacramento, also yield lots of stripers. Size is smaller than on the Atlantic Coast, with most fish from 5 to 8 pounds, but occasional catches in the 20-pound class.
Regional Roundup — Best of the West
Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead, Nevada, contain vast numbers of striped bass. The lower portion of Lake Mead offers fast action for stripers from 3 to 6 pounds. If numbers are your game, consider these spots, though Powell has produced a few stripers from 30 to 40 pounds in the last few years.
Lake Mohave, lying below Mead on the Colorado River, recently has risen to the top of the pack for production of giant stripers. In fact, two over 60 pounds, the biggest a 67.1-pounder, were recently taken from this desert lake that forms part of the border between Arizona and Nevada.
Fishing is banned in the mile below Hoover Dam, but from that mark downstream for 18 or so miles, giant stripers roam within the canyon walls. Water passes through the dam at 56°F and remains near 60°F through that stretch, making it prime for giant stripers in summer. Stocked trout fuel the growth of the big linesides.
During winter, the lower end of Mohave also produces many fish from 30 to nearly 50 pounds. A. C. plug inventor Alan Cole plies this water and has taken hundreds of big stripers on his giant plug. Stripers spawn successfully in Mohave, but growth rate apparently hasn't become depressed due to too many fish, as it has in upstream impoundments on the Colorado.
California's O'Neill Forebay, associated with the San Luis Reservoir, holds the all-tackle record for the International Game Fish Association, a 671„2-pounder caught by Hank Ferguson in May, 1992, as well as many line class records. Reports suggest that production of giants is down on this small body of water, due in part to fishing pressure stemming from publicity. But action is fast for smaller fish, and a giant is always possible. In such waters, striper numbers depend on fishing pressure and fish passing through the aqueduct.
Regional Roundup — Middle America
The range of strictly inland stripers extends from Oklahoma and central Texas north to Nebraska, where Lake McConaughy once produced fish into the mid-40s, and east to Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake. At McConaughy, a moratorium imposed on striper stocking has put the kibosh on the fishery, though fishery chief Don Gabelhouse feels the recent addition of alewives might merit a review of the striper stocking issue.
The Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas has a reproducing population of stripers, but the four major fisheries in Arkansas (Beaver, Ouachita, Hamilton, and Norfork) are supported by stocking. Hot Springs is a hotbed of striper fishing, with Lake Ouachita offering a hot spring topwater action.Summer patterns involve soaking live shad in the 60-foot depths of the reservoir where cool water and sufficient oxygen are found.
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Much smaller Lake Hamilton, just downstream on the Ouachita River, also offers outstanding striper fishing, with potential for a giant, like the 53-pound 13-ounce state record caught in 1997. Beaver Lake, northeast of Springdale, offers fast action for stripers from 10 to 20 pounds, with fish from 25 to 45 pounds taken on live gizzard shad. Winter and early spring are top times for giants. And don't forget 22,000-acre Lake Norfork near Mountain Home, which has a lake record of 48 pounds. Most stripers run from 8 to 20 pounds.
The Appalachians also offer deep clear waters that foster production of stripers. The Cumberland River, flowing through Kentucky and Tennessee, provides water so cold that trout are stocked, adding high-calorie forage to the prime environment. The river finds its way into Old Hickory Lake, and the upper reaches of that impoundment offer fine fishing for stripers as big as they get, including guide Ralph Dallas' 62-pound state record.
Guides and savvy local anglers set big live gizzard shad on planer boards and skirt fallen trees, rock bluffs, and other potential holding spots. But the sight of 50-pounders busting topwatersalso lures anglers to this region. A bonus is the Gallatin Steam Plant, about 15 miles north of Nashville, that releases heated effluent, a magnet for shad and stripers in winter. In the upper river-run section, careless outboard operation risks a lower unit, so many anglers use jet boats.
Tennessee's hilly terrain, mild climate, and large rivers provide great habitat for stripers. Toss a dart at the map and you'll likely nail a striper lake. Other popular destinations include Cherokee Lake near Morristown; Percy Priest Reservoir and Cordell Hull near Nashville; Watts Bar on the Tennessee River in eastern Tennessee about 20 miles west of Knoxville; Center Hill on the Caney Fork River near Smithville; Tims Ford and Woods Reservoir just north of the Alabama border; legendary Norris in Campbell County, where trophy stripers were at one time common, but size is now down; and Melton Hill Reservoir near Knoxville. At Melton Hill, warmwater from the Bull Run Steam Plant draws giants during winter.
South into Alabama, warmer waters tend to reduce the success of stripers; hybrids are more often stocked. But Lewis Smith Reservoir near Cullman ranks as the state's best trophy striper water, with fish from 30 to 40 pounds. This impoundment is stocked with Gulf Coast strain stripers, thought to tolerate warmwater better than fish of Atlantic Coast origin.
Alabama's other top spot is Lake Martin, a 40,000-acre impoundment of the Tallapoosa River east of Montgomery. Fish over 30 pounds are commonly caught. In both lakes, winter offers opportunities for surface fishing with Cordell Red Fins and A. C. Plugs, as big stripers push shad to the surface. Smaller (1,900 acres) Yates Reservoir is a sleeper for big fish, stocked at a low 1-fish per acre rate to increase growth potential.
Farther west, Oklahoma offers several excellent striper fisheries, with Texoma on the Texas border the most famous. In this 89,000-acre impoundment on the Red River, stripers spawn successfully, producing a dense population. As in other waters, size has suffered as a result, with most fish running from 5 to 10 pounds.
During summer, stripers hold just above the thermocline in Texoma, so drifting and trolling live shad works well. As in other southeastern waters, cold weather frees stripers to pursue shad tothe surface, and casting topwaters, crankbaits, and jigs often produces nonstop action. Hundred-fish days are common. In the tailrace below the dam, a few big stripers are caught after passing through the dam.
While thermal stress has cut the number of large stripers at northeastern Oklahoma's Keystone Reservoir, natural reproduction continues to provide stable fishing for stripers to 20 pounds. For trophy-size stripers, try the upper end of Robert S. Kerr Reservoir, where the Illinois River enters the Arkansas River. From there to Tenkiller Dam, fish in the 40-pound class are caught.
Texas shares the bounty of Lake Texoma and also boasts a strong striper fishery at Lake Whitney, a 30,000-acre impoundment on the Brazos River between Fort Worth and Waco. Lake Tawakoni also offers good striper fishing.
Regional Roundup — The East
Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, has been a striper stronghold for decades. Late March through May are prime times for fish to 40 pounds, with live shad a prime lunker bait. Winter offers fast action for fish from 7 to 12 pounds on jigging spoons and large bucktail jigs. Night fishing in fall also is productive.
Though average size has dropped considerably in South Carolina's Santee-Cooper Reservoir, fish in the the 20-pound class are frequently taken. This was the first reservoir to offer inland striper fishing, but habitat changes have reduced ultimate fish size.
Lake Murray, west of Columbia, offers lots of fish to 10 pounds and a fun topwater bite during winter for fish into the low 20-pound range. As in other fertile southeastern waters, lack of a coldwater refuge during summer limits trophy production. But the best in the region may well be the pair of Savannah River impoundments on the Georgia border — Clark Hill (also known as Strom Thurmond Reservoir) and Lake Hartwell. Clark Hill produced a 55-pound 12-ounce monster. These deep, expansive impoundments have runs of blueback herring that provide large pelagic prey. Both boast excellent fisheries for hybrid stripers as well as purebreds.
Lake Lanier near Atlanta remains Georgia's premier striper fishery and produces high catch rates, though maximum size is around 30 pounds. For trophy-size fish, try Lake Nottely, where fish over 40 pounds are occasionally taken. The striper sleeper is the Coosa River near Rome, where total catch-and-release reigns due to contaminant problems. But as in other areas, the regulation has boosted the population.
Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania is the most northerly inland striper fishery, and annual stocking by the Raystown Striper Club and the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission plus a diverse food supply in the form of gizzard shad, alewives, and smelt keep the fishery fired up. The fast-growing population contains fish into the upper 40-pound class.
So many lakes, so little time. I regret that I've fished only a few of this fantastic collection of striper waters. But you can bet that I'll be trying at least one new water this spring. And I just might take a swing by Lake Cumberland for old-times's sake.
Hybrid Stripers and White Bass
Two other members of the Morone clan merit attention. White bass, widespread in the central and southeastern United States, extend into Canada where excellent fisheries exist. Hybrid stripers ae hatchery-produced crosses of stripers and whites, stocked into impoundments that offer abundant shad in offshore habitats.
Whites and hybrids tolerate warmer water than striped bass, so in far southern regions, biologist often opt for hybrids when considering an additional predator. Like stripers, whites and hybrids are schooling fish, so finding them usually means fast action as long as the school remains near the surface. The spring spawning migrations of white bass offer outstanding fishing, and hybrids also migrate upstream, though their attempts at reproduction are futile.
White Bass Hot Spots
Toledo Bend, LA-TX — The February run up the Sabine River is incredible; whites here go on a crawdad feed in spring.
Winnipeg River, MB — Fast action for fish from 2 to 3 pounds.
Glen Elder, KS — One of the hottest in the Midwest this year.
Grand Lake, OK — An all-time white bass great that's living up to its reputation.
Eastern SD Lakes (Poinsett, Enemy Swim, Pickerel) — Mostly untapped resource; high average size.
Lake of the Ozarks, MO — Good summer bite in addition to the spring binge.
Bull Shoals, AR — Trophy country with many 3-pounders taken.
Lakes Oahe and Sharpe, SD — Overlooked in the quest for walleyes, whites thrive in this portion of the Missouri River.
Devils Lake, ND — Population booming in this growing lake; freshwater shrimp boost growth.
Truman Reservoir, MO — Among the best, year in and year out.
Fort Gibson, OK — Catch 'em till your arms turn blue.
Lake Winnebago, WI — Consistent reproduction fills this diverse body of water with 12- to 14-inchers.
Hybrid Hot Spots
Red Willow Reservoir, NE — Fish keep getting bigger; new state record (20 pounds) last year.
Skiatook Reservoir, OK — Fishery peaking right now.
Altus-Lugert Reservoir, OK — Destination for giants; produced 231„4-pound state record last year.
Greers Ferry, AR — Incredible trophy fishery; fish over 27 pounds so far.
Lake DeGray, AR — Just a notch behind Greers in production of giant fish; 20s present.
Calamus Reservoir, NE — Wipers and walleyes feast and grow fast on alewives.
Clark Hill, GA-SC — Blueback herring and shad fuel this classic hybrid impoundment, probably the best hybrid water in either state.
Apalachicola River, FL — Hot tailwater bite below Jim Woodruff Dam at Lake Seminole.
West Point Lake, AL-GA — One of the all-time hybrid greats is presently riding a crest.
Tennessee River, AL-TN — Hybrids wander through this vast system, concentrating below Wheeler and Wilson dams.